Two months after Yetur Gross–Matos graduated from Chancellor High School in 2017, he found himself surrounded by elite talent at Penn State and unsure exactly how he’d fit in at the next level.

Gross–Matos dominated opposing offensive tackles with the Chargers, but the leap from Class 4 high school football in Virginia to the Big Ten was staggering.

That was until Gross–Matos got a few practices under his belt and realized his combination of size, speed and most importantly, work ethic, enabled him to compete with college football’s best.

“I really wasn’t sure going in,” Gross–Matos said in an interview with The Free Lance–Star on a recent visit home. “But after the first couple of practices I was like, ‘Yeah I’ve got this.’ I was new and I really didn’t know much. I was going against guys who had been there three or four years. And I was winning.”

Gross–Matos appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman and recorded 17 tackles from his defensive end position. As a sophomore this season, he earned first-team all-Big Ten honors from media covering the conference.

Twelfth-ranked Penn State (9–3) will take on No. 14 Kentucky (9–3) in Tuesday’s Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., at 1 p.m.

Gross–Matos is a key reason why the Nittany Lions have an opportunity for a third consecutive 10-win season. He’s recorded 54 tackles, including 20 for loss. He also has eight sacks. His tackle for loss total is tied for eighth all-time in school history.

Gross–Matos said he expected to put forth a memorable campaign after being pushed by fellow defensive linemen and position coach Sean Spencer in off-season workouts.

“It was a lot of competition within the people in my group,” Gross–Matos said. “I’m not the fastest, the strongest or anything in my group. So just keeping up and beating the guys that are more physically gifted than me was huge in giving me confidence.”

Gross–Matos (6-foot-5, 259 pounds) added 15 pounds of muscle in the off-season and the confidence boost served as a springboard into the season.

He had at least a half-sack in five straight games from Oct. 13 through Nov. 10. He had at least a full tackle for loss in nine straight contests.

He was named the coaching staff’s defensive player of the week after victories over Iowa, Rutgers and Maryland. He was awarded the Reid–Robinson Award, presented to the team’s top defensive lineman at the Penn State banquet and he was on the national watch list for the Hendricks Award (given to the top defensive end in the nation).

“I’m really pleased,” Penn State head coach James Franklin told reporters earlier this season about Gross–Matos. “He’s a guy that I think you guys know we’ve been excited about for a while. He’s got the body type you’re looking for. He’s got the athleticism you’re looking for. He’s got the mentality … So it’s all starting to come together for him right now.”

It’s been a process.

Gross–Matos admits that when he first arrived at Penn State he had little idea of the proper technique required to play his position. He said he was all about “See ball, get ball.”

But after consistent work with Spencer and defensive coordinator Brent Pry, Gross–Matos has learned to put his physical tools to use.

Pry said that Gross–Matos’ development as a student of the game is still a work in progress but that his constant motor and work ethic more than compensates for any lack of experience. Franklin said Gross–Matos’ intense play is inspirational to his teammates.

“I’m excited about the steps that I think he’ll continue to take,” Pry told reporters. “I think he can be one of the best that I’ve been around at that position.

“When your best player or your most productive player is your hardest worker, that’s a really good combination. I think we have a chance to be there with Yetur. There’s some competition from other guys in the room, but right now no one outworks him.”

Rob Matos said that drive has always been a part of his son’s makeup. He coached Gross–Matos in youth leagues in various sports in Spotsylvania County and on Chancellor’s basketball team.

Matos didn’t hold back while coaching his son, so he believed Gross–Matos was well-prepared to endure any harsh criticism from Penn State coaches.

Still, it’s been more than stern correction that’s helped Gross–Matos thrive. His father mentioned the connection Gross–Matos has built with the coaching staff as a major factor. Matos said his son would “run through a wall” for Spencer and the other coaches.

Matos said that’s because of the family atmosphere the staff has created.

He noted that parents are able to freely communicate with the coaching staff.

“I’m almost certain that at other big-time schools, [the head coach] isn’t calling somebody’s daddy to talk to them about stuff or to talk in general,” Matos said. “We have those types of relationships.

“I can call up his D-line coach and say, ‘Hey Spence, I need to talk to you.’ I can call up his head coach and say, ‘Do you have a couple of minutes?’ That’s been big for us. We know people genuinely care about him and want him to be successful.”

Gross–Matos is aiming to complete his sophomore campaign Tuesday with a strong performance and another Penn State victory. He said his focus will then turn to spring practice.

Although all-conference seasons at major programs can typically lead one to look forward to the NFL, Gross–Matos contends that’s not on his mind. He’ll be eligible for the NFL draft after the 2019 season.

“I’m thinking about him being healthy. I’m thinking about him continuing to do well academically,” his father said. “He’s getting closer to that degree and we’ll deal with [NFL possibilities] at the appropriate time.

“It’s super premature right now because it can change tomorrow … We want him to keep a smile on his face and continue to get better. That’s all going to take care of itself.”

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Taft Coghill Jr: 540/374-5526

tcoghill@freelancestar.com

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